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Sailing by Ravens

A month or so ago I was fortunate to be able to have lunch with an old friend, poet Holly J. Hughes. I have mentioned her on this blog before, as she is one of the authors of The Pen and Bell (with Brenda Miller). And, as if catching Holly between a thousand other calls for her attention wasn’t accomplishment enough, she gave me a copy of her new poetry book, Sailing by Ravens, published by University of Alaska Press (2014).

“Read the poems in order,” Holly told me as we parted. But I always read poetry books in order, gobbling them up (in fact) like novels–not short stories or novellas, by the way, novels, because the best books of poetry have just as much emotional content. Not easy, not on the surface like a more conventional narrative, but there nonetheless.

Sailing by Ravens did not disappoint. I knew from reading her earlier chapbook, Boxing the Compass (Floating Bridge, 2007), that learning to navigate rough seas would be interwoven here with the trickier navigation of a marriage and its end. But in Sailing, the metaphor of navigation is extended. Holly spent 30 summers working in (on?) the waters of Alaska (I’m quoting a review by Tim McNulty), “fishing, skippering a sailing schooner, and working as a ship’s naturalist. Her poems shimmer with authenticity.”  The poems about human relationships shimmer with authenticity, too. And all of the poems benefit from Holly’s willingness to carefully observe her world (and read about it), no matter how painful, or how beautiful. The prose poem, “Navigating the Body,” had an epigraph that sent me scurrying for a pen (“No land in human topography is less explored than love” -Jose Ortega y Gasset) and then took me into unexpected territory:

Navigating the Body

Our bodies an accumulation of coordinates, paths not taken, streets pulled up short, lonely alleys, dead ends. In the dark I reach out, find crows’ crooked feet, scrim of scars–proud flesh–read each scar, remember its time and place, its bright spurt of blood. These are the landscapes we think we know. These are the landscapes we’ll never know. In the dark, we make our way, mapping and remapping the continents each night. Like Scheherazade we keep doing this; like Scheherazade, this is how we stay alive. 

Confession: I’ve read this book three times. The first time through, the forms (sestina, villanelle, ghazal and others) as well as some of the subjects (Mercator, Flavia Gioia, John Harrison are only three) were lost on me. But as I read and absorbed the notes, and reread the poems, the book seemed to have a trapdoor in its floor that dropped me down into another level (into water? over my head?). It was only then that I began to appreciate the encyclopedic knowledge that I was being offered, in addition to the poetics, “Isinglass darkened, but not enough to shield our Eyes, / rays of Sun Fractal, spatterpaint retinas, Shutter stutters.” (Just two lines from “The Forestaff 1587.” Such sounds!) So, not just argot, then, but shovel-loads of sound and sense detail, “scooped, shovel by shimmering shovel, into the fish hold” (“What She Can’t Say”).

True, it takes a while to process such a treasure. But the trip is well worth it–and I’m pleased to heartily recommend this book.

Go to http://hollyjhughes.com/  to find more information about Holly J. Hughes (and links to reviews), and to Verse Daily to find another of her poems.

Where I’ve Been

mom mtn

My mom has had a series of strokes and I’ve spent a lot of the last week in her hospital room. We thought we were losing her for a while there, but now she seems stronger and we’re just waiting to see. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, a picture and a poem. (published in Jeopardy, spring 1992)

Calling a Daughter

Each spring you call me,
your word from home, some number
of new calves born on the farm,
your voice flowing

a dozen years of miles,
conjuring red and perfectly white babies stumbling
under their mothers’ bellies,
clean as Jesus, bawling “maa.”

I hear dishes clinking in a sink,
water’s fumble
as you wander your kitchen
tethered by the wall phone’s curling cord,
your kitchen where five children crept
underfoot and then abroad.

In summer dusk my name
swept the yard, curving
outward from your throat,
sound liquid as perfume spilling
from where you stood on the old porch
and I ran over the damp grass
waving my arms like wings.
One morning I found my way
down the road around that dangerous corner
to Granma’s house. She called you
on her black telephone
and you fetched me back,
tickling my legs with a switch
every step the way home.

After you hang up, I stand
on my own front porch where night air
blooms sudden and voluminous,
lavender and roses,
the scent of your powder puffs.
Memory, like a mother catches me up,
like you, lap at the upright piano,
fingers jangling ivory keys
Abundant grace you gave to me. 

How daughter looks like laughter,
sounds like water, 
always here, always going away.

Day 29: The Remodel

cabin4At POETRYisEVERYTHING, for Day 29 of National Poetry Month, Chris Jarmick assigned a house remodel poem. He also made some lovely, encouraging comments about the challenge to write a poem a day this month, for instance:

“And if you’ve paid a little more attention to poetry during our month long sharing of prompts and writing —thank you… I know good things will come of it.”

Because of Chris, I also have become a subscriber at Elsewhere in the Rain (the link should take you to a post that includes a list of poetic terms),  which I highly recommend.

So here is my poem. Er, draft of a poem. May good things come to you.

I’m not sure why, but I have been thinking
about how death reorganizes us.
I don’t mean anything simple, no cleaning out of closets,

it’s more than donating the old suits
and scuffed shoes to Good Will,
throwing out the years of National Geographics

and Good Housekeeping. Something more primal,
more like remodeling, tearing out closets,
breaking out a window to add a cupola

or a deck, making the kitchen brighter,
expanding the bathroom to make room for a tub.
It isn’t our own death that does all this hammering

at the stays of existence. Other peoples’ deaths,
or whatever that category of event
that wakes us, that insists we see

the necessity of a wicker chair under a skylight.
Don’t wait to call the carpenters until things are dire,
until the time is more expedient–

Your own death will arrive one midnight and then your house
will be a small room, smaller than this one
in which you sit and write.  You can promise

to write, but no letters arrive from the dead.
There’s no desk there and the ink
in your lucky pen dries up after the first millennium.

Day 28: Translation

I found this on The Plot Whisperer’s Facebook page (Martha Alderson)

Here’s a thumbnail portrait of today’s process…

I tried to take seriously Chris Jarmick’s assignment for day 28, to “translate” a poem into English from a language I don’t know. I found a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and printed it out. I carried it around. I don’t know German, but I thought I could make out a few of the words. I opened my poetry book and copied out the poem in longhand. It’s a longish poem (“Erlkoenig” is the title, I think) and I thought I would copy only a stanza or two, but I ended up copying the whole thing. Then…for a long time…I stared at it. Then, I wrote this (please excuse the lack of cool accent marks):

Resisting Translation

The assignment is to translate a poem into English
from a language I don’t know–
and knowing so little of languages other than my own,
it seems an easy enough assignment.

“Translate,” in smart quotes, which must mean,
“not really translate,” though I can guess
that Nacht und Wind 
means Night and Wind. (Is that cheating?)

Assignments, I tell my students, are about
getting out of our accountant, linear left brains
and into our creative, more imaginative
right brains, into what poets count our better half.

But aren’t I beyond assignments, beyond
all that sturm und drang, not to mention the Nacht
und Wind? 
No knave or knabe, not I.
And spat (which I looked up) has nothing to do with spitting,

not even a spitting wind. Mein Vater, my father,
let me off the hook of this difficulty,
let me mutter and growl in my own tongue,
write (whatever it might mean) birgst du so bang.